Friday, 28 December 2012

A summer on the road.

I started bouldering in the late 90s- in 1998 in fact. My early forays were designed to distract me from some of the more enjoyable yet physically taxing aspects of my new life in the urban spaces of Merseyside. As with many things in my life, brief visits to climbing walls and crags quickly led to complete immersion in all aspects of climbing and climbing culture. Guide books, magazines, videos, topos and tall tales were digested greedily and in equal measure. My need to experience climbing physically, mentally and culturally could not be sated. Thirteen years of injury and the shifting sands of life have done little to quench this thirst.

In the late 90s the ultimate expression of being a baggy, beany wearing boulderer was to be involved in a road trip. Ben and Jerry had stepped out of their Pennine playgrounds underscored by the weird musical landscapes provided by Warp Records in “One Summer Bouldering in the Peak” and jumped into a world of beats, base and travel showcased in “The Real Thing.” This video, propelled by the rocket fuel of Ninja Tunes’ various artists changed the lives of many and provided the template for all climbing films that followed. Titles like “Rampage” and “Frequent Flyers” from the States stoked boulderers’ desire to go on the road. Like a crazed furnace man I happily shovelled coal onto the fires of those around me, feeding their burning need to go to venues such as Font, Ailfrode and El Cougal. Many a lad happily hopped onto my train of pure enthusiasm- many a girlfriend wished I could be derailed in some way.

On a road trip distance has no meaning- neither has time. All spatial and temporal measurements are calculated by looking at the number of map pages traversed compared to those yet to come. Towns, cities, countries fly past in a blur of smells, sounds and colour. Blood thickened, senses sharpened by espresso. White lines guide the way, keep you safe, tick, tick, tick by, setting the rhythm of the road. Hypnotised by motion, reality is held within a metal bubble with a windscreen on the world. All existence is fleeting, fluid as it flies by. This intoxicating mix of movement and momentum means no venue or problem seems out of reach, beyond the glare of headlamps searching for experience.

This year, like those of the past, the road trip is king. A thousand miles has disappeared in a day. This summer two thousand miles have evaporated in a couple of weeks. The bays and coves that nestle along the Welsh coastline have been scoured and exploited from north to south in search of the wave-washed booty that may lie within. Familiar haunts have been revisited and reworked; new venues have been found and hot foreign boulders have been plundered for all that they are worth, all to the tick, tick rhythm of the white lines as they stretch away into a myriad of possibilities.

It’s been a good summer to be on the road. Liverpool’s terraces have always ebbed and flowed, swelled and crashed into rollers of discontent on the streets. Urban spaces across the nation suffered a similar fate, burning on the bonfires of inequality, flames fanned by cuts and carelessness. It would be nice to think that the rhythm of the road could open minds and help quell the flames, however it is unlikely. As one character met on a trip this summer said, “London has burned on and off for a thousand years, there is no reason it should stop now or in the future.” So as we remove carrots and rule our urban spaces with sticks again, discontentment will build and we will ride these waves of fury out into the countryside and our playgrounds of possibility in summers to come.

Views from Dinas Pembrokeshire

Dinas is the Welsh word for city. It is strange that in a summer spent escaping city life this word in particular has resonated through the venues I have visited. From Dinas rocks in Glyn Neath and the wonder that is Fat Cat Roof, to the blue dolerite above Dinas in Pembrokeshire and on to Dinas Dinlle west of Caernarfon the launch pad from which new problems were crafted at Porth Dinllaen. The tick, tick rhythm of the lines on the road has led me away from the Urban whilst place names have firmly anchored me to that labyrinth of lives – the city.

Road trips are about escapism- swapping a routine of commuting and working to one where only eating, sleeping and climbing counts. Life becomes a simpler story on a road trip, the pages turn themselves day to day, crag to crag. In this narrative I like to frame myself as the driver; part of the machinery that devours distance, separated from the engine by nothing more than a simple membrane of skin, sensing the surface of the road through the vibrations of the steering wheel. My escape into the process that propels us along the road is secondary to the escape sought in the landscapes at the journey’s end. Carn Enoch and Garn Fawr sit high on a moor that overlooks Newport and the north coast of Pembrokeshire. This boulder field’s position high above Dinas Cross, inhabited by nothing but mountain ponies and sheep, is possibly one of the best in the UK. What the venue lacks in volume it makes up for in atmosphere. There is something ancient and mystical about this place; if you tune in the impression it makes may just help you through those dark, damp urban nights to come.

Some Problems from Dinas Pembrokeshire

Porth Dinllaen is a different beast; separated from a tourist hotspot by the manicured grass of a golf course, escape should be hard to find. However the crowds’ attentions are diverted by sand, beers, ice cream, sandwiches and putters leaving you with leagues of sea and boulders to climb. Half a dozen freestanding boulders serve as a playground for a boulderer looking for sport whilst the family enjoy the foaming waves nearby. The rock here can be sharp and even friable however the elements have sculpted it into shapes that succumb to a gentle mix of care, power and guile. Numerous zawns litter this short stretch of coast, they contain beautiful, dangerous lines waiting for someone who is willing to risk all and engage with the escapism of first ascents above angry landings. The climbing here feels adventurous despite the crowds and their sandcastles a stone’s throw away. Road trips throw up a rich range of experiences, you can take what you like from them. I’m sure someone out there would quite happily consume a post-send ice cream whilst contemplating how they would play the difficult par three, thirteenth hole that lies before them, their golf clubs and bouldering mat.

Sequencial shots of a possible new problem at Porth Dinllaen - Hoobies High Heels font 7a

Summers, like road trips, inevitably come to an end. The time arrives to meld with the car and retrace the steps taken into these rich landscapes of experience, following them back into city structures of concrete, brick, glass, and angst. Returning to the urban seems less melancholy when the journey is fuelled by beats and base, fingertips throbbing, the mind illuminated by the myriad of moves attempted along the way. These mental scenes will light the dark months hiding under the same overhangs and caves that have sustained past winters. Like ants we will swarm over our cities, retreating to the safety of buildings and the enterprise that lies within them. I will try to move mountains with teaspoons for yet another year, hoping that those young people I work with won’t light the urban touch paper again soon, whilst all the time the tick, tick of the road will always be there in my head, inviting me on trips yet to be conceived. As young men waste their lives battling against knowledge, informing me how bored they are, my mind will find an even keel in the plans of the next road trip and the adventures that lie ahead.

Cheers Owen

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